The increase of unaccompanied children caught crossing the Mexican border into the U.S. has prompted the Obama administration to create a multiagency task force, headed by the Federal Emergency Management Administration, to address the issue.
The move follows last month’s creation of a temporary shelter for unaccompanied minors at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. Several Texas border areas, including the Del Rio and Rio Grande Valley sectors of the U.S. Border Patrol, have seen record-breaking arrivals of children crossing the Rio Grande alone, some of who are as young as 5, agents said.
“In this role, [FEMA] Administrator [Craig] Fugate will, subject to my oversight, direction and guidance, lead and coordinate Federal response efforts to ensure that Federal agencies are unified in providing relief to the affected children,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson wrote Monday in a statement.
“U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will maintain primary responsibility for border security operations at and between ports of entry and, working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), provide for the proper care of unaccompanied children when they are temporarily in DHS custody.”
House Republicans, who have accused the Obama administration of creating the recipe for such turmoil, quickly lambasted the decision.
“Word has gotten out around the world about President Obama’s lax immigration enforcement policies, and it has encouraged more individuals to come to the United States illegally, many of whom are children from Central America,” said U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “Illegal border crossing is extremely dangerous, and many of these children encounter drug and human traffickers along the way. Enforcement at the border and in the interior of the U.S. is crucial to end these kinds of situations, not another bureaucratic task force.”
Goodlatte said he would ask the committee to hold a hearing on the issue in the coming weeks.
U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the task force was a step in the “right direction,” but he was also critical of the president’s policies.
“ICE and CBP officers and agents are being overwhelmed by a massive influx of unaccompanied minors, whose crossings have doubled in the last year and is now projected to exceed 60,000 children in 2014,” he said in a statement.” The stories behind these numbers are absolutely heart wrenching — parents are handing over small children to smugglers only to endure unspeakable hardship.”
As of late April, the Rio Grande Valley Sector had apprehended more than 24,000 unaccompanied minors during the 2014 fiscal year. That total surpasses FY 2013’s total of 21,700. The children are mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, said Daniel Tirado, a U.S. Border Patrol spokesman, and are treated differently than adults who are apprehended.
“Unaccompanied juveniles take priority and are placed in front of the line to be processed. Once juveniles are processed, they are turned over to [Enforcement and Removal Operations] and the Office of Refugee and Resettlement,” Tirado told the Tribune in April.
Citing safety and privacy issues, government officials and shelter organization employees will not discuss in detail how the children are processed or where they are placed. According to a fact sheet on the ORR website: “ORR makes and implements placement decisions in the best interests of the [unaccompanied alien children] to ensure placement in the least restrictive setting possible while in federal custody. ORR takes into consideration the unique nature of each UAC’s situation and incorporates child welfare principles when making placement, clinical, case management, and release decisions that are in the best interest of the child.”
The Associated Press reported that the Obama administration had underestimated the costs associated with caring for the unaccompanied youths and would ask Congress for an additional $1.4 billion.
On Monday afternoon, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, called on the Obama administration and Congress to authorize a multiagency center to process undocumented immigrants, including the minors. He said the current situation calls for additional resources. The Rio Grande Valley Sector, he said, is at 190 percent detention capacity.
"Because of the massive influx of immigrants being apprehended at the border, it is necessary to create a central location in which all elements of the adjudication process can be completed," he said. "We need to do a better job taking care of the children who are crossing the southern border unaccompanied and we must act immediately to avert a potential humanitarian crisis along the border."